For the past six months I worked to organize an event that recently took place just outside of Nashville. Amongst other duties, I was responsible for housing and feeding ten people for three days while they met to discuss their work. I arrived each day an hour before mealtime to set the table, make coffee, open wine, adjust the temperature and lighting of the dining room, stoke the fire, and to set out a beautiful spread of food prepared by a local chef. I wanted everything to be perfect and everyone to be happy.
The group would often break a little early and most of the attendees would sit around the fire chatting with one another or go to their rooms for a few minutes of rest. One guest though liked to check out what I was doing in the kitchen, examining the food I was setting out or commenting on some element of the dining room. It’s not that something was always “wrong,” but I got the sense it wasn’t ever quite “right” either. A passive remark here, a subtle look of something like disappointment there. I was picking up what the guest was laying down but only to move it somewhere out of my line of sight. Hinting is my least favorite form of communication.
On the night of the last dinner, I dimmed the lights; I warmed the room; I set out plates of beautiful pink salmon, crunchy green beans, lentils, and mixed greens; I opened bottles of wine and set out a pitcher of chilled water (not too much ice though for fear someone might have sensitive teeth). As the guests happily settled in, I heard a voice I’d come to know well directed towards me: “I noticed you don’t have any bread.”
- Disbelief (This person can't be for real.)
- Anger (Looks at everything out here for you! Why do you need bread too?)
- Frustration (See, Kate, even your best isn't good enough.)
- Fear (Great, now she's probably going to write a bad review, our client will hate us, and I'll get fired.)
- Sadness (What a sad way to move through life.)
- Compassion (I used to think that way too.)
- Gratitude (I don't think that way much anymore. Thank you for helping me see that.)
I measure personal growth today by moments like these, by how quickly I can move through the negativity to get to the truth, to get to what is good. I turned towards the guest who was clutching a bowl of pita triangles I had set out in the other room during the cocktail and hors d’oeuvres hour, smiled, and thanked her for bringing them in from the other room.
I went back to the kitchen and began setting up for dessert, a gorgeous chocolate cake dusted in powdered sugar. I cleared everyone’s dinner plates, set out new dessert plates and forks, and delivered the cake. I closed the door to the dining room and left our guests to their conversation. Standing alone in the kitchen, scraping plates and loading the dishwasher, again I heard a familiar voice directed towards me: “Do you have any fruit, possibly some nuts?”
Disbelief. Anger. Frustration. Fear. Sadness. Compassion. Gratitude.
“There’s fruit in the refrigerator, but sorry, no nuts,” I replied. We’d used up all the nuts filling mason jars to place in each guest’s room so they would have a welcome snack on the day they arrived.
The guest got some fruit and left the room. As I stood there washing dishes, I must have cycled through that wave of emotions a dozen more times, landing on gratitude only to pick up anger or disbelief once again. I laid in bed that night thinking about bread, and fruit, and nuts. To this guest, it wasn’t that there was a beautiful pink filet of salmon on the plate in front of her; it was that there was no bread. It wasn’t that there was a gorgeous chocolate cake prepared by a friend’s own hands and paid for with money that would continue to circle through this tiny town; it was that there were no nuts.
Pity is such a condescending emotion, but I felt pity for this person. I thought how sad it must be to move through life looking for what is missing when what you’re missing is everything in front of you. I thought how lonely it must be to sit in a room of plenty and still want more, or how disappointing life must feel when your expectations dim the light of every real and beautiful outcome.
I know from personal experience that if you believe the world is out to get you, you will find overwhelming evidence that it is. And when you believe the world is for you, there is no human or non-human element strong enough to stop the world from turning every cog, powering every engine, and rewriting every map in your favor.
As my friend and mentor Michael would say, “It’s choosing a worldview.” We get to choose a worldview each and every single day. We get to choose joy, love, purpose, and intention. We get to choose salmon, green beans, and cake. We also get to choose disappointment, scarcity, and impatience. We get to choose missing bread, nuts, and yesterday’s fruit. No matter what we choose, it will be what we get. When I believe, however, that all I have is all that I need, more and more appears.